A few years back, I took a sabbatical to work as the Chief Strategy Officer for a national philanthropy organization that focused on elementary education. During that time, I was involved in setting up a program to address what’s known as “summer slide”—the regression in academic learning that occurs during the long summer break from school (one study suggests that students lose around 20% of their school-year gains in reading and 27% of gains in math during summer break).

Now back to consulting full time, this experience got me thinking: do professionals go through something similar when we take a break from work? My view is that in contrast to young children, adults need time off because it is absolutely essential to increasing the knowledge, understanding and skills of employees. While providing much needed time out to recharge batteries, a break provides an opportunity for people to pursue self-guided lifelong learning. As adults, we can be intentional about how we use our time, and we can use it wisely to boost our capabilities.

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Thinking even further about lifelong learning, I believe there are three key considerations for each of us:

1. Challenge yourself in what you read. This is a tip I picked up from my creative writing professor, who suggested each of us should read publications that challenge how we think about important issues. Every Sunday I try to read both The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times editorials, so I can weigh up the different perspectives offered by publications at different ends of the conservative-liberal spectrum. So, if you’re in the UK, why not pick up a copy of The Guardian and The Telegraph, or in France you could try reading both Le Figaro and Le Monde – only by challenging your worldview can you grow.

2. Think about how you learn best. Unlike children, who generally do as they’re told, we can shape our learning experiences to meet our unique needs—both around how we learn best and what we most like to learn about. Some of us thrive with online learning, while others do best with an in-class experiences. Others still may prefer a hybrid/blended learning model. Learners should take the time to discover the best approach for them, which their employers can then support through appropriately sized learning programs and talent development programs.

Accenture’s experience through our Accenture Academy is that the 70-20-10 model still holds true, whereby people gain 70% of their knowledge on-the-job, 20% from working with others and 10% from formal training. We’ve seen that people are tiring of a virtual-only curriculum, especially in the wake of COVID-19, and many people are responding better to more interactive learning and group-based sessions —the experiential end of learning that is difficult to virtualize.

On another note, when it comes to what we learn it’s important that we balance learning about the topics we find interesting with those areas that are important, but which don’t resonate to quite the same degree. Create a mix between these topics so that learning about your passions is balanced by learning about the topics you know you need to learn about, but which are less interesting.

3. Balance “hard” and “soft” skills development. A trend that’s been accelerated by the pandemic is that leaders are thinking holistically about the business, relative to commitments to shareholders, stakeholders, and communities. So, when we consider lifelong learning—either as individuals or as business leaders—we need to consider the full range of skills, which includes both hard and soft skills.

For their part, leaders need to look at the ways in which different interaction and engagement models best serve customers and employees to improve both the customer and associate experiences. As our recent Care to do Better research suggests, senior leaders including the CEO, CFO and CHRO are creating experiences grounded in care for people and concern for their communities, while accelerating the performance of the business. This shift in focus will be reflected in learning programs that meet the whole-person needs of people—both the left-brain analytic/technical skills and right-brain creative and emotional ones.

So, as you consider your lifelong learning, what books do you recommend? Here are two of my recommendations. The first is Steven Covey’s best-seller, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. From habit #2 ‘begin with the end in mind’ to habit #5 ‘seek first to understand then to be understood’ to habit #7 ‘sharpen the saw’ Covey reminds us that being effective requires continuously considering the importance of the outcome, learning by understanding and making time for learning.

My second recommendation is Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. It’s a great reminder that different cultures engage with individuals in business and social settings in different ways, and that understanding these differences is vital in the context of learning. That said, and cultural differences aside, one thing remains the same the world over: where people are given the opportunity to learn in the ways that suit them best, great things follow.

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Elizabeth Coulton

Managing Director – Talent & Organization, Human Potential

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